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Minolta DiMAGE A1

Minolta updates their revolutionary five-megapixel electronic SLR with faster shutter speeds, an Anti-Shake mode, 14-bit A/D, and a tilting LCD monitor, among other improvements.

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 08/08/2003, Updated: 11/10/03

Executive Overview
Minolta's previous Dimage 7, 7i, and 7Hi digicams have proved so successful among consumers, that the company apparently decided to keep a good thing going. The new Dimage A1 offers the same exceptional features found on the previous models, with a few updates that further extend its capabilities. The A1 continues with the 5.0-megapixel CCD, ultra-sharp 7x optical zoom lens, and host of fine-grained user controls that contributed to the earlier models' popularity, but adds a number of subtle but significant enhancements like 14-bit A/D conversion and a new Anti-Shake system. The camera also boasts a higher maximum shutter speed at 1/16,000 second, a grip sensor that controls the Fulltime AF option, and a tilting LCD monitor. As with the Dimage 7Hi, the Dimage A1 features extensive creative controls (including an option to use the Adobe RGB color space), sophisticated camera functions, and a user-friendly interface that make it appealing to advanced users, while its simple to use full "auto" mode lets you hand it to a novice with confidence. The camera's ergonomic design looks and feels a lot like a conventional 35mm SLR, with an elongated lens barrel and a lightweight magnesium alloy body with plastic outer panels hosting the numerous dials, switches, and buttons. Although the profusion of controls makes the camera appear complex, they're all logically arranged and actually fairly easy to learn. Minolta has packed a lot of functions into a very workable layout, with a range of features normally found only on more expensive professional-level digital cameras.

A 2/3-inch progressive-scan primary-color CCD with 5.3 million pixels (5.0 million effective), provides a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,920 pixels, among the highest available in a consumer digital camera as of this writing in early August, 2003. The 14-bit A/D converter and relatively large pixel size provide a wide dynamic range (detailed highlights and shadows) and fine tonal gradation, with as many as 16,384 levels captured in each RGB channel. The CCD's light sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to 800, and may be automatically controlled by the camera or manually selected by the user. The Dimage A1's updated color space flexibility includes two sRGB options (Natural and Vivid color), in addition to standard and embedded-profile Adobe RGB options for professional use in a color-managed environment.

All that sensor resolution would be useless, however, if the lens couldn't resolve fine detail. The Dimage A1 appears to feature the same advanced apochromat 7x zoom GT Lens that was so impressive on previous models in the line, one of the sharpest and lowest-distortion digicam lenses I've tested to date. Comprised of 16 glass elements in 13 groups, the GT lens has two anomalous dispersion (AD) and two aspheric glass elements for sharp, detailed images with minimal distortion and glare. The 7.2-50.8mm focal range (equivalent to a 28-200mm zoom in 35mm format) provides the flexibility for wide-angle interior and landscape shots, as well as close-up portraits and distant action in sports photography. The manual zoom ring is a pleasure to use, with a wide rubberized grip and smooth, mechanically-coupled lens action. A maximum aperture that ranges from f/2.8-f/3.5 (depending on the focal length setting) is fairly "fast," helpful for low-light and action photography. The Macro capability lets you capture subjects as close as 9.8 inches from the lens, which translates to a very small 1.5 x 2.0-inch minimum capture area. A host of focus controls provide a lot of flexibility, and on-demand manual focus lets you tweak the autofocus setting without switching from auto to manual focus mode.

One area of significant departure for the A1 though, is its use of a conventional TFT LCD for its electronic viewfinder (EVF), rather than the unique reflective ferroelectric LCD that was used on the previous models. The ferroelectric LCD was the source of much comment and rather polarized feelings amongst the user community, with some lauding it for its very smooth appearance and excellent low-light capability, while others were put off by the "crackled glass" effect caused by either camera or subject motion. The new TFT-based design seems to have very high resolution (Minolta hasn't published a spec for its pixel count) and does an excellent job in low light as well, while not showing the "crackled glass" artifacts seen in the earlier design. (I predict that the new EVF will be a big hit with users, eliminating what was a negative point for many prospective users. Like those of its predecessors, the A1's EVF offers unique flexibility, with a variable position eyepiece that tilts up as much as 90 degrees. The camera's 1.8-inch LCD monitor also tilts downward about 15 degrees or upward 90 degrees, making it more convenient when shooting at high or low angles.

The Dimage A1's exposure system offers three metering options: 300-segment Multi-Segment, Center-Weighted, and Spot. The default Multi-Segment option divides the image into 300 separate areas, placing emphasis on the main subject, but integrating luminance values, color, and autofocus information from across the image to accurately calculate exposure. Like similar AE metering systems on other cameras, the Center-Weighted and Spot metering options place most of the exposure emphasis on the central portion of the frame, or a small spot at the very center of the frame, respectively. Exposure modes include Auto, Programmed AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual, plus four Digital Subject Programs specifically set up for Portrait, Sports, Night Portrait, and Sunset exposures. These presets use not only aperture and shutter speed settings to best capture the subjects, but also Minolta's exclusive CxProcess image processing to optimize color balance and skin tones.

On top of all these features, the Dimage A1 also provides a Digital Effects Control that can be used to adjust Color Saturation, Contrast, and Filter (hue). The Digital Effects adjustments are particularly notable for their fine gradations and wide range, allowing you to customize the camera's color and tonal response to precisely match your personal preferences. A Color Mode option offers special color effects and a black and white shooting mode, which can be adjusted via the Filter Effects setting. Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 EV in one-third-step increments. A Digital Enhanced Bracketing option for taking three bracketed exposures of an image, features two different values adjustable to either 1/3 or 1/2-stop increments (the one-stop option available in earlier high-end DiMAGE models has been dropped in the A1. In addition to exposure, this feature can also bracket any of the Effects options, including contrast and saturation. A customizable AE Lock button can be set to lock only exposure, or both exposure and focus. White Balance is adjustable to one of four preset options (Daylight, Fluorescent, Tungsten, Cloudy, and Shade settings), along with Auto and Manual options. Shutter speeds range from 1/16,000 to 30 seconds, with a Bulb setting that permits manual control of exposures as long as 30 seconds. Maximum lens apertures are f/2.8 at the wide-angle end and f/3.5 at telephoto. A real-time histogram display mode helps verify exposure before capturing the image. (There's a histogram display option in Playback mode as well.)

Autofocus performance is a key area where the Dimage A1 shines. Autofocus is powered by a Large Scale Integration (LSI) chip that rapidly processes image data through a high-speed 32-bit RISC processor. A lot of jargon that simply explains why the A1's AF system is noticeably faster than average among high-end "prosumer" digicams. The autofocus system can determine focus in one of three ways: Wide Focus Area averages readings from a large area across the middle of the frame (indicated on the LCD by a set of widely spaced brackets); Spot Focus Point reads information from the very center of the LCD (indicated by a target cross-hair), and Flex Focus Point lets you move a target cross-hair to virtually any position within the viewfinder, so you can focus on off-center subjects without having to aim, lock focus, and then recompose the shot.

The built-in, pop-up flash offers two methods of flash metering. Advanced Distance Integration (ADI) bases its exposure on the lens aperture, feedback from the autofocus system (how far the subject is from the camera), as well as on a separate metering flash. Pre-Flash TTL (through the lens) uses only the small metering flash prior to the main exposure to gauge how much light is reflected by the scene. The Dimage A1 also includes a top-mounted hot shoe for attaching Minolta external flash units (and any compatible third-party units). An external flash sync terminal offers a standard "PC" style sync jack for connecting to studio strobes or other external flash devices. Flash modes include Fill-Flash, Red-Eye Reduction, and Rear Flash Sync, with Flash Compensation available from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. A Wireless flash mode lets the camera work with certain Minolta-brand wireless flash units. A manual flash mode fires the onboard flash at full, 1/4, or 1/16 power. Since manual flash mode doesn't use a pre-flash, it's perfect for driving studio strobes via conventional slave triggers.

Additional Dimage A1 features include a Movie (with sound) mode with Night exposure option; Voice Memo mode; Standard and High Speed Continuous Advance modes; 2x Digital Zoom; Interval Recording of two to 240 frames in one- to 60-minute intervals; 10-second Self-Timer; and three Sharpness settings. Five image quality levels include RAW uncompressed files, and TIFF, Extra Fine, Fine, and Standard compression settings. Resolution options for still images include 2,560 x 1920; 2,080 x 1,560; 1,600 x 1,200; and 640 x 480 pixels. Movie resolution is 316 x 240 pixels.

Not to be outdone on the output phase of digital imaging, Minolta has incorporated Epson's PRINT Image Matching technology, which ensures that Dimage A1 images captured in autoexposure mode and output on compatible Epson printers will be automatically color balanced to provide true-to-life hues and saturation.

Powered by one NP-400 rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (an optional AC power adapter is available), as well as an accessory hand grip that lets you power the camera from either six AA cells or two NP-400 packs, the Dimage A1 represents an amazingly versatile package for the serious amateur or prosumer photographer. USB and A/V cables also accompany the camera, for connection to a computer or television set. My prototype evaluation unit did not come with a software CD, but I assume that Minolta will include a standard software bundle along with the camera.

 

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